Pavement’s Top 50 Songs – Part 2, 25-1

Pavement Month Staff Lists

What would our month-long celebration of Pavement be without a group list? Easily a favorite band for the vast majority of our staff, Pavement have long been a regular topic of conversation among the Strange Currencies contributors. Therefore, it’s only fitting that we would attempt to quantify our (sometimes) decades-long debates with a ranked list. The question was straightforward: what are Pavement’s fifty greatest songs?

Our methodology was simple, and the same that we used for last year’s ranking of The Beatles’ greatest tracks: each contributor had 50 picks; the top pick received 50 points, the 50th received 1. All tracks from Pavement’s five LPs, many EPs, singles, compilation contributions, and expanded album reissues were eligible. Of the roughly 140 qualifying songs, eighty-one received at least one vote. As the site’s editor-in-chief, I held the role of tiebreaker, though the final placements varied greatly from how I ranked Pavement’s seven entries in the A Century of Song project.

The rankings revealed some interesting details about our group: only twelve of the fifty songs ended up on all seven contributors’ ballots; one entry on the final list only made it onto a single ballot; Tim Ryan Nelson’s reputation as a troll continues (really, Tim, no “Summer Babe” or “Here”?); and finally, we all REALLY love Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Here are our picks:

Part I: #50-26

25. “AT & T”

from Wowee Zowee (1995)

140 points

(SHARP INHALE) Perhaps the most uncomplicatedly catchy song on Wowee Zowee, “AT&T” feels like a sequel to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’s “Unfair.” Instead of a wild weekend of sightseeing and casting judgment upon the shallow and superficial locals in Los Angeles, it’s a wistful morning in a New York City hotel at Christmastime. We’re opening disappointing gifts and ordering room service, looking forward to exploring the city’s blood-stained past by way of the towering glass convention center known for its ties to the Mafia, and in the end we discover that all the consumerism and empty fashion statements of L.A. are also alive and well on the opposite coast. The song feels mournful and hopeful and content all at the same time. Plus it gets all yelly and loud at the end, which I like. — TRN

24. “Embassy Row”

from Brighten the Corners (1997)

144 points

If there is a Pavement formula, it’s a slow build that crescendos with an all-out shred, almost like warming up an engine before tearing down the quarter-mile, red-lining across the finish line, trailing smoke. Calling it a formula risks ruining the gleeful joy that it brings, but if it is, then “Embassy Row” is the test case. The melodic intro grows and grows, never giving in, until they’ve taken the inevitable crown. I’m all in; rebuild the engine and let’s go again! — GB

23. “We Dance”

from Wowee Zowee (1995)

147 points

Most (not all) of us here at Strange Currencies ascribe to the belief that Wowee Zowee was the third consecutive Pavement masterpiece. With that said, it seems that all of us took a more circuitous route to loving the album than just about anything else in their catalog. Wowee Zowee is infamously tough to penetrate, but once you get it, you get it. To its credit, the album does start off with one of its most conventionally inviting pieces, but keep in mind, this is all relative. “We Dance” is as cryptic and elusive as the seventeen tracks that follow, but again, when you get it, you get it. — MR

22. “Starlings of the Slipstream”

from Brighten the Corners (1997)

168 points

I hate to lean too heavily on textual analysis here for three main reasons: (1) it’s usually the least interesting angle (2) these are Pavement lyrics, for Christ’s sake, and (3) I already leaned too much on textual analysis in part one.  All that being said, I sense a common theme between “Starlings of the Slipstream” and a few other songs on Brighten the Corners, namely “Old to Begin,” which has always sounded to me like the reckoning of adulthood.

This time, it’s the twin bugbears of inertia and nostalgia. A starling caught in an atmospheric current travels long distances with very little effort, but not on its own power. Its destination is quite literally tossed to the wind. The sense of not being in control of one’s trajectory is not unique to adults, but I think as an adult, one experiences it in unfamiliar, sometimes disempowering ways. Doors that were previously open begin to close around us, and dread creeps in that our lives are being written for us. Nostalgia, on the other hand, works the other direction – distracting us with memories of paths untaken, rewriting memories into fiction. It’s all pretty alienating, and I think the metaphor of a bird caught in an updraft conveys this sense pretty well. — JL

21. “Transport Is Arranged”

from Brighten the Corners (1997)

174 points

The shorthand take on Brighten the Corners is that it’s Pavement’s most accessible album, but as I’ve said before, this is all relative. I can specifically remember trying to sell one of my Strange Currencies colleagues – who shall remain unidentified – on a dubbed copy of Corners, shortly after its release in the spring of 1997. The first two songs passed by with relative ease, but by the time that this early-album beauty reached its climactic instrumental mid-point, said colleague replied, “I don’t know if I’m ready for this.” He’d get there in time. In fact, “Transport” came in at #21 on his personal list too.

Oh, and yeah, that Mellotron appearance is choice. — MR

20. “Harness Your Hopes”

single B-side (1999)

178 points

This is a B-side!? Yup. That’s how good this catalog is. If you stumbled upon Pavement on a streaming service like Spotify or Apple Music, and you noticed “Harness your Hopes” listed as one of the band’s top songs, you may miss the intrigue. It was originally recorded during the Brighten the Corners sessions, but it was left off the album and eventually came out as a B-side for “Spit on a Stranger.” It only climbed the streaming charts as a top song due to something of an algorithmic glitch (read more here). That said, it’s still a great track with signature Stephen Malkmus humor: “Show me a word that rhymes with pavement / And I won’t kill your parents and roast them on a spit.” Maybe sometimes you just need an algorithmic glitch to make sure you don’t overlook any buried treasures. — GK

19. “Major Leagues”

from Terror Twilight (1999)

188 points

If “Range Life” is a tongue in cheek glorification of a touring band’s road life, then “Major Leagues” is the sleepy hangover that comes at the end of the line. The chilled-out vibe and juxtaposition against cynical – and possibly adult – lyrics highlights some of the tensions that may have been facing the band at this point in their tenure. On the other hand, they’ve never sounded tighter, if not simply worn out. Gratification isn’t always as good as it sounds. — GB

18. “Rattled by the Rush”

from Wowee Zowee (1995)

190 points

I love Wowee Zowee, but I get the sense that most fans would consider it their second-least favorite Pavement album. The opener, “We Dance,” is an awkward start, what with all the acoustic guitar and piano and castration talk right out of the gate (I still love it, of course). I can understand a big fan of the previous albums being a little put off. I assume that for many listeners, “Rattled by the Rush” is the true opener here, due to itchy “skip” fingers. If nothing else, it serves as a palette cleanser. A comfortably easygoing and subtly noisy return to form. You can tell this is one of the tracks Malkmus was referring to when he said the songs on Wowee Zowee “sounded like hits” to him. This isn’t my favorite song on the album, but it’s certainly radio friendly, and a good substitute Track 1 if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of losing your “Brazilian nuts.” — TRN

17. “Frontwards”

from Watery, Domestic [EP] (1992)

201 points

The piece of classic Pavement trivia I’ve held closest to my chest is this: The song that eventually became “Starlings of the Slipstream” began life as a Warren Zevon pastiche called “Werewolves of Stockton.” As the tune evolved, they kept the “ah-ooooohs,” but little of the original thematic debauchery remained. All the better for “Starlings” I’d argue, but what to do with those lyrics about Stockton debauchery? They soon found a home on “Frontwards.” Pina coladas were swapped out for joints of Mexican dirt weed, chrome hubcaps were stolen by stylish perfect-haired thugs. (There was some mutilation of little old ladies too, but Malkmus saved that for “Harness Your Hopes.”) — JL

16. “Father to a Sister of Thought”

from Wowee Zowee (1995)

217 points

This is another Wowee Zowee song that I’m an absolute sucker for. It has similar vibes to “Motion Suggests,” but it isn’t quite as listless. It similarly cruises along gently without taking any sharp turns, but the added country flavor and punchy guitar riff outro give it a bit more personality. There’s also something intangible going on here. This is one of those songs that, in my memory, I inflate to wildly inaccurate proportions. I think of it as being eleven minutes long and dense with intrigue and mystery. But then I listen to it and remember just how simple it is. Somehow I’m tricked into experiencing it as an epic when it’s really just a pleasant little tune. There’s a magic to it. Or maybe it’s just the power of not one, but two pedal steel solos. — TRN

15. “Trigger Cut”

from Slanted and Enchanted (1992)

229 points

An early glimpse into the pop brilliance of Stephen Malkmus, “Trigger Cut” proved that Pavement would approach such things as “hooks” and “accessibility” on their own terms. For each and every irresistible “sha-la-la-la-la,” there’s a cryptic allusion, a garbled backing vocal, or a slightly-detuned string. Though Pavement would build their name off of rejecting the very concept of “perfection,” in a sense, they would create a brand new definition of the term. — MR

14. “Shady Lane”

from Brighten the Corners (1997)

237 points

“Shady Lane” was the Pavement song that broke through for me, sometime around my junior year of college. Up until that point they’d been a band for kids cooler than me. Kids who hid behind slacker appearances, but who were really geniuses, who either now teach high school or run regional corporations. Pavement was a band that was an aspiration, a mindset to strive for, perhaps not unlike an actual shady lane. When I realized that I actually liked Pavement it was like being welcomed into a club. There are better songs, yes, but everyone has to start somewhere, and I can think of fewer places more comfortable to begin. — GB

13. “Elevate Me Later”

from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)

241 points

What a fractured beauty. While “Elevate Me Later” features some of the cleanest melodic charms of any track on Crooked Rain, there’s an undeniable corrosion that precludes it from ever sounding too “conventional.” It’s shambolic-but-crystalline, inviting-yet-temperamental, bucolic-yet-seedy. It’s forty different shades of black. It creates a sound that only this combination of musicians could ever truly pull off, and yet, it sounds so goddamned attainable. What a fractured beauty. — MR

12. “In the Mouth a Desert”

from Slanted and Enchanted (1992)

244 points

While commonly misread as “In the Mouth of a Desert” by an unnamed editor of Strange Currencies, this Slanted and Enchanted track sonically places you inside of a metaphorical desert, where the relentless snare hits and arid underlying guitars act both as harsh sun rays and suffocatingly dry air. All while lyrics about trying to understand the Freudian concept of the id – and how that comes out in interpersonal relationships – invokes the dryness of a bond breaking apart, or even the very literal dryness of one’s mouth during and after emotionally stressful situations. Yet, none of the dryness that radiates from this track is uncomfortable. It’s actually strangely inviting, as if it wants you to find some hidden mystery behind the distorted guitars and backing vocals. — RG

11. “Spit on a Stranger”

from Terror Twilight (1999)

249 points

One of my biggest takeaways from this exercise of ranking the Pavement catalog is how much I love the underrated Terror Twilight. I always sort of thought of it anecdotally as the lesser of an incredible run of albums, but in looking back more critically, I realize it is loaded with some of my favorite songs: one of the central tracks being the single, “Spit on a Stranger.” 

I get it. Most people like their Pavement when it blasts them in the face. And maybe Terror Twilight doesn’t exactly deliver all that blunt force. In fact, with an opening track single whose song title implies you’re about to be affronted, it instead greets you with a disarming guitar line and endearing vocal delivery on the first line. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for a slow song. — GK

10. “Cut Your Hair”

from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)

257 points

Beavis and Butthead had an outsized influence on the music tastes of several people on this list. There was always a weird sense of pride that came when one of your favorite band’s videos made it onto the show. That Pavement appeared twice speaks well of Mike Judge’s musical taste, and while it was actually said during the “Rattled by the Rush” video, the best criticism laid against Pavement came from Beavis: “Do it again, and this time TRY!” No way this could have been said against “Cut Your Hair,” a track so thoroughly raucous that it can’t help but make you smile.

I’ve often thought of Pavement as a sort of nineties Big Star, beloved for their orneriness as much as their talent, and both largely under-appreciated outside of critical circles. If this holds true, then “Cut Your Hair” is Pavement’s “In the Street” – a shout-it-out-with-your-friends anthem, if the people that are into Pavement were actually into such things. The only time I was ever able to see Pavement live, I had a drunk guy in the crowd get mad at me because I deigned to wear ear plugs. He kept turning around to shout and motion for me to take them out, to the point that I was expecting punches to be thrown by the final burned-down chords of “Cut Your Hair.” Maybe he had a point? — GB

9. “Here”

from Slanted and Enchanted (1992)

257 points

If you’re looking for one Pavement’s prettiest songs, combined with at least a few of Pavement’s most inscrutable lyric choices, “Here” it is. I don’t know what a crotch maven is, and something tells me I’ll go my whole life not knowing. But I know that as a younger dude, I wrote at least half a dozen songs trying to learn how to play this one. I guess if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best. — JL

8. “Unfair”

from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)

258 points

I saw Stephen Malkmus perform with The Jicks at an ACLU benefit show in early 2017. These were dire times: the first couple months of the wretched Trump administration. The travel ban had been enacted. The phrase “alternative facts” had entered into the lexicon. Everything felt, gross… Midway through the abbreviated set, Malkmus addressed the crowd, stating “It’s fucked up if even I’m getting political.” He was right.

The thing is, there had always been a political element lurking around the edges of Malkmus’ songwriting, just not in the “traditional” sense. Pavement’s breakthrough single – the first song of theirs that I ever heard – was all about scene politics. His solo work contained allusions to nefarious characters like Bob Packwood. And this track, a centerpiece from Crooked Rain, examined the complicated intrastate politics of Malkmus’ home state of California. While I didn’t (and still don’t) have a dog in that race, it was nice to know that Malkmus and I were political allies in a new battle. — MR

7. “Summer Babe (Winter Version)”

from Slanted and Enchanted (1992)

261 points

This here is a big one: the first single; the lead track to the debut LP; the song that launched thousands of pale imitations. Some of those imitations have been worthwhile; at least I’d like to think so (FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve played in an on-again/off-again musical project/band for over a decade, and the majority of our shows have featured a cover of this very song). The thing is, this “Summer Babe” is elusive. She’s unattainable. She’s out of our league. We’ll never fully understand her, and she’ll never even notice us, but we still love her just the same. — MR

6. “Stop Breathin”

from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)

272 points

There’s something to be said about how good rock bands throughout the years have had flawless control over the dynamics of their songs. Following the rough equation of soft-loud-soft-loud dynamic patterns set by early Pixies albums, bands in the nineties started to run wild in their fascination with dynamics in their songs, and Pavement was no different in this regard. Arguably their most interesting and compelling experimentation with dynamics, “Stop Breathin’” begins not all that different from the slacker rock they helped define, and ends with a long and apocalyptic outro that invokes bands like Sonic Youth and Wipers. Malkmus’ ability to write lyrics that match the instrumentation is again shown at full force on this track, as themes of war, emotional breakdown, sexual frustration, and tennis lead perfectly into a coda that reflects the angst and anger of the song’s narrator. — RG

5. “Stereo”

from Brighten the Corners (1997)

296 points

I mentioned before that I was guilty of sleeping on Wowee Zowee. “Stereo” was the tune that brought me back into the fold. It was a minor radio hit in Tucson before our “new rock” station transitioned to a “nu-rock” station, playing mostly bands with misspelled names. I’m pretty sure I picked up Brighten the Corners within hours of first hearing “Stereo” on the stereo, an experience made all the more surreal by ol’ Steve using his last verse to confirm to me that I was, in fact, listening to him on my stereo. And also that he might have malaria. — JL

4. “Grounded”

from Wowee Zowee (1995)

296 points

Looking back through my other entries for this list, I feel like I’ve already used every adjective, every comparison, every bold(ish) claim that I could just as easily have used for “Grounded.” Then again, it’s a track that speaks for itself. For anyone already not convinced of its greatness, just lay down with a good pair of headphones, close your eyes, and let the song build up around you.

What really makes this my personal favorite Pavement recording is how emotional it is. The song itself just sounds so fed up with the world around it, and being about how wealthy doctors seem to be more interested in living lavish lifestyles and flaunting their wealth, the lyrics again perfectly mesh with the music around it. But every other note, every other chord brings a nuanced and almost optimistic feeling to me that contrasts with the frustration and anger. It’s something that no other song has ever been able to do for me. — RG

3. “Gold Soundz”

from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)

296 points

Pavement’s signature sound is very hard to define, to the point that we describe other bands as being “like Pavement.” There is a Pixies sound (loud-quiet-loud), same as there are Smashing Pumpkins (pedal fuzz) and Dinosaur Jr (GUITAR!) sounds, but there isn’t a good descriptor for Pavement. Words like “hipster” and “lazy” get bandied about, but those don’t encapsulate it. As soon as we think we can describe it, they change course and tempo, sometimes even structure, yet somehow this indescribable sound is at once very familiar. Cozy even. Which is where we find “Gold Soundz,” near the top of a great catalog, but without seeming to really try. Shimmering, but also unassuming. Foreign, yet communal. A secret we keep to ourselves, very much like the band themselves. — GB

2. “Silence Kid”

from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)

301 points

There are so many contenders for “Best Pavement Song.” At the risk of pulling back the curtain too much, there was not a consensus first pick amongst the contributors, so it came down to the songs with the most points. But “Silence Kid” earns my top pick for five reasons:

1) I wanted to pick a song that featured Bob Nastanovich. Because, man. That cowbell.

2) It had to be a song with catchy, radio-friendly melodies and hooks, but it only feels right that it should also be a song with a sound-check, trashcan opening, almost guaranteeing that no radio DJs would play it. 

3) Is it “Silence Kit” or “Silence Kid”? I love that the band just embraced a misprint/type-o/ink splotch. Because, you know, slackers are like, “whatever.”

4) Pavement is all about the unexpected detour, so the fact that two-thirds of the way through the song, they drop a false ending and go in a completely different direction seems fitting. 

5) It needs to be a song with solid guitar work, and somewhere Malkmus needs to do something vocally unexpected. “This is the city liiiiiiiiife.” That’ll do. — GK

1. “Range Life”

from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)

327 points

My colleagues: I love ’em, but they got it all wrong. Really, “Gold Soundz” belongs in this spot. After all, I named it the #21 song of all-time in my A Century of Song project. It’s perfect. And yet, here they are, collectively declaring that “Gold Soundz” is only the third best song on its parent album.

That’s okay, I suppose. After all, I’ve really enjoyed collaborating with them on this list, and we’re all allowed to be wrong from time to time. In fact, I’ll admit that I might have gotten it wrong on A Century of Song. No, not about “Gold Soundz.” That’s still the best Pavement song, but I think I’m okay with saying that “Range Life” is Pavement’s other perfect song, despite the fact that I once publicly rated three of the band’s tracks ahead of it.

As someone who has spent a long time writing about music, I’ve wrestled with the whole “dancing about architecture” awkwardness that is part and parcel of the trade for a while now. At a certain point, you run out of adjectives, and out of different ways to say essentially the same thing over and over.

Therefore, we have to get creative, even abstract, on occasion. In a conversation that I had with Strange Currencies contributor Kaye C. a few years ago, she referred to Sgt. Pepper as a “suburban” album. My immediate reaction was probably little more than a furrowed brow, but pretty quickly I realized exactly what she meant. I can see “suburban” in Sgt. Pepper: it’s comforting, cozy, clean, familiar, inviting.

I can see it even more with Pavement. Especially on “Gold Soundz,” and yes, “Range Life” too. The imagery is right there: a skateboard and a walkman, street lights flickering on in the early evening, the pettiest of crimes. I can’t not picture my own teenage summers when listening to this song, and feel at least a little stirred by a wave of nostalgia for the “memories turned into fiction” that Jack referred to when talking about “Starlings of the Slipstream.” To me, and at least a few of my colleagues, this is the sound of the nineties – at least the idealized version of it that somehow becomes both more mythical and more real with every passing year. — MR

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